Since the first rule of intelligent dining is to ask your server what preparation shouldn’t be missed that evening, and since my server at FlintCreek Cattle Co. didn’t miss a beat in answering—I found myself before a plate of venison pâté; hardly a crowd favorite. This pâté was coarser than your standard silken goose liver version, more robustly flavored than rich; friendlier, somehow. Alongside on the beautifully composed plate came planks of charred Columbia City Bakery baguette, a tangle of herbs with radishes, pink shallot circlets, a russet heap of brightest pickle relish.
Onto each crusty baguette went a schmear of pâté, a dollop of relish, a crown of herbs—and it tasted like…well, I can’t tell you exactly what it tasted like, as that’s about when my eyes rolled back in my head and my pen dropped to the floor, but each bite completed and elevated the one before, in as deft a feat of nuance and balance as I’ve tasted in recent memory. Savory, sour, sweet, rinse, repeat…here was a dish nobody wouldn’t love. And it was venison pâté.
FlintCreek owner and chef Eric Donnelly describes his style in terms others use to explain pinball. “Elements need to bounce off each other,” he says—the protein requiring counterbalance from the sauce, then something rich, something deep, something bright. Donnelly is not formally trained and credits New Orleans–by way of–the Bay Area celeb chef Jan Birnbaum, who mentored young Donnelly at his Seattle restaurant Sazerac in the ’90s, for schooling him on how flavors blend and contrast, often within a single bite.
After that, along with stints at Toulouse Petit and the late Oceanaire, Donnelly opened Fremont’s RockCreek Seafood, which took about 10 minutes to become the best fish house in Seattle. There is its broad survey of finfish and shellfish, yes—much of which one rarely sees elsewhere. But mostly it’s those carefully layered conceptions, delivered with uncanny consistency.
For years, Donnelly had been wanting to do the same for game. Raised by an avid hunter, the Seattle kid often came home to fresh bear meat for dinner. “I have this really vivid memory of a steaming deer hanging in [my dad’s friend’s] barn, of slitting it open and dressing it out,” Donnelly recalls happily. “It’s one of my coolest childhood memories.”
Say what you will about such an image: It will teach a budding chef about sourcing. And there’s no denying game’s increasing “It” status as an environmentally and healthfully prudent alternative to farm-raised cattle. Donnelly’s timing is exceptional, I thought as I walked into FlintCreek, the warm and windowed anchor of 85th and Greenwood. In fact his timing was delayed, by the Greenwood gas explosion last March, but clearly the place still nails the zeitgeist, teeming with guests from the main floor’s bar and dining room—open kitchen, wood-burning oven, lightly western theme—to the more intimate loft in the rafters.
RockCreek has a loft too; apparently Donnelly likes his servers to climb stairs. But in spite of the workout, ours all remained unerringly upbeat. An uncommonly helpful one described the bison dish as “like a steak salad without the lettuce nonsense.” Bison is leaner than beef, with more chew to the meat and an almost floral finish—brilliant bouncing off the Cashel Blue cheese, onion marmalade, and walnuts roasted in a brown butter roux. A duck confit arrived thickly crackle crusted and darkly gamey over sweet lentils, a wash of dijon mustard, pickled onions, and cabbage for a little bitter commentary.
On and on their pinball way the flavors ricocheted, in preparations from savory fennel-roasted Mad Hatcher chicken over sweet sunchoke puree (swell idea!) to an endive salad strewn with herbs and chewy pork bits and roasted figs dripping syrup; from caramelly roasted cauliflower over a thick and exacting hazelnut romesco to an ice cream sundae enlivened with glassy bruleed sugars and candied pecans and caramel sauce and chocolate-coated peanuts. Perhaps the most extravagant success of all was a plate of lamb sausages bursting juices and served alongside roasted fingerlings, pickled green tomato wedges, and truffled cabbage slaw—all this over a base of melting raclette cheese.
I’d have liked to have been there when he was coming up with that many-headed hydra of a dish—a dish that would seem incoherent from its sheer surfeit of elements, but which ended up tasting just flat-out fantastic. Straight beefsteaks show up on this menu too, but don’t be a fool: Donnelly’s good at an astonishing number of things (pristine sourcing, scrupulous execution, command of his line), but his main calling card is crowd-pleasing conceptions that aren’t dumbed down. Maybe more chefs should not go to culinary school.